Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 17, June 2001



Edward R. O'Neill

The Last Analysis of Slavoj Zizek





_Cogito and the Unconscious_

Edited by Slavoj Zizek

SIC: A series edited by Slavoj Zizek and Renata Salecl

Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998

ISBN 0-8223-2097-5

279 pp.



I. Introduction.

I. A. Theory and Method in the Human Sciences.

I. B. Justification of the Current Review.

I. C. Zizek: Method and Rhetoric.

I. D. The Plan of this Review.


II. The Volume's Topics.

II. A. Lacan and Descartes.

II. B. Lacan and Kant.

II. C. From Malebranche to the Siren.

II. D. The Cogito's Critics.


III. Rhetoric and Method

III. A. The Example of Slavoj Zizek.

III. B. Bait and Switch.

III. C. Wittgenstein Made Easy.

III. D. Idealism Redux, or the Return of Vulgar Interpretation.

III. E. The Proliferation of Examples and the Rhetoric of Homology.

III. F. The Substitution of Rhetorical Force for Argument.

III. G. Situating Zizek.

III. H. Vicious Circularity of Interpretations.


IV. Conclusion.





'[T]here is really no art involved at all in being generally intelligible if one thereby renounces all basic insight, but such a procedure turns out a disgusting mismash of patchwork observations and half-reasoned principles in which shallowpates revel because all this is something quite useful for the chitchat of everyday life'.

-- Immanuel Kant, _Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals_.




If we take the 'human sciences' as the French do to include both the study of human action and the symbolic products of these actions -- in other words, to include what we Americans divvy up into the social sciences and the humanities -- then the question of method is probably one of the most important yet most vexed within this admittedly broad domain.


Discrepancies regarding the role of methodology are indeed striking. In the realm of science, a theory involves a correlation of cause and effect, and the experimental method guarantees this correlation. Interpretations of human actions and symbolic products, by contrast, lack the same kind of necessary-and-sufficient correlation: a theory of human action or culture does not correlate causes and effects but rather provides a means for linking a proliferation of surface events with an inner structure. Because a number of depth interpretations are possible, outsiders may view the results as specious, since it can never be proven that humans act as they do because of -- you fill in the blank -- class struggle, repressed instincts, the thrown-ness of Dasein, etc.


Thus when Freud argues that beneath the symptoms of paranoia (delusions of persecution, erotomania, egomania) there is a single phantasy -- 'I (a man) love him (a man)' -- the surface symptoms are interpreted as transformations of an underlying phantasy: 'I do not love him, I hate him'; 'I do not love him, I love her'; 'I do not love him, I love myself'. The translation cannot be tested in the sense that we cannot find a paranoiac who lacks these symptoms, for the absence of such symptoms would mean he wouldn't be a paranoiac. Nor can we find the underlying phantasy through some kind of direct observation: the phantasy may motivate other forms of behavior, but that does not preclude its being the source of the paranoiac's symptoms. We cannot isolate the phantasy as a 'cause' nor the symptoms as an 'effect' in order to demonstrate the correlation.


What makes such a theory and its interpretation credible is thus not the ends, for a sexual meaning must be taken as given in advance by the theoretical framework. Rather, it is the means of the interpretation itself, the extent to which we can demonstrate and justify the inherent rationality of interpretation, which must take up the burden of proof. In this situation, the internal consistency of the interpretation and the ability of the theory to generate a method for translating the surface phenomena into their deeper significance becomes paramount.


We reject a theory of human actions not based on itself alone, since every theory involves the assumption of a perspective that cannot be questioned: if you do not accept class struggle, the unconscious, or the ontological difference, then you cannot accept anything else that Marx, Freud, or Heidegger have to say. But we reject these theories at those places where their formulae for selecting and transforming a surface phenomenon into its significance become capricious, or the scope of the theory's application seems unreasonably wide. What is irksome about Marxism is that for its adherents there is nothing but class struggle, and anything which denies the centrality of class struggle is mere 'ideology'. Ditto for Freud: anything can be traced back to the repression of impulses as long as the interpretation is long enough to get from one point to the other. And for Heidegger, Being does not show itself and so even its very concealment serves as an index of its (paradoxical) unconcealment.


Such theories may be condemned as 'totalizing', since the perspective leaves nothing outside it, and condemns with its own pejorative terms -- 'ideology', 'repression', 'metaphysics' -- any opposition to it. And it is all too easy to make fun of these excesses without recognizing that the very fact that one sees them as excessive often places one outside the realm of the theory's adherents, rather than the other way around. Indeed, it is difficult to say whether these sins are evitable. What is less evitable is the assumption of an orientation which would grant meaning, and which assumption cannot in itself be questioned without the adoption of another non-neutral orientation and assumption of significance. Which is to say that the opposition to one theory is not non-theory but only *another* theory.


On this view, a method of interpretation can be said to take the role in the human sciences that the experimental method plays for the physical sciences, and, as the human sciences emerged in the 19th century, theories of interpretation, language, and meaning took on an increasingly important role, since such theories of interpretation serve as meta-theories of the human sciences. A theory of human action requires a theory of interpretation, and the selection of a theory of interpretation commits one to an orientation towards decoding human actions: a theory of class oppression thus requires a theory of ideology; a theory of the unconscious requires a theory of dreams; a theory of Being requires a poetics of dwelling.


But since different methods of interpretation take place within different theoretical frameworks, these interpretive methods are every bit as incommensurable as the theories. To some extent, one cannot argue for a theory outside of its own bounds, since assuming those bounds is itself the act of adopting the theory. Although a theory of human action may attempt to make itself a consistent, closed system by spelling out its protocols and procedures, there is no single universal framework for determining what set of standards to adopt, since adopting a theory itself involves exactly the adoption of such a set of standards.


Nevertheless, there is a general set of means to which writers can appeal in trying to persuade readers to adopt their theories. This general set of means should be called 'rhetoric': the non-technical, non-specialized means by which we appeal to induce assent. Thus, every theory of human actions requires some set of rhetorical appeals to persuade readers that this perspective is the one to adopt, even apart from or prior to the internal canons of the theory itself. It is this rhetoric and the relation between it and interpretive method with which the current review will concern itself.




While the volume under review *does* address somewhat the contemporary status of Cartesianism, and while the volume also appeals at points to films to make its points, philosophy and film cannot be said to intersect in a precise and focused way in this volume. Thus from a certain perspective, the volume would seem inauspicious for the purposes of the present audience -- those with an interest in both philosophy and film.


But if we take philosophy not merely as one subject area within the contemporary academy but rather more broadly as involving a heightened reflexive concern with details of methodology, then it makes a great deal of sense to review the current volume in terms of the philosophical concerns with procedures of interpretation. In so doing, the volume under review will have to serve as a stand-in for larger movements or tendencies within the humanities in general. This burden cannot be entirely fair, but since I believe these methodological concerns are genuine, their application to this particular volume and its contents is not out of order.


The volume currently under review is a convenient place from which to address questions about the place of method in interpretation, since the volume is part of a series which claims to have the same theoretical orientation, since that orientation involves interpreting cultural artefacts and analyzing human behavior. The approach in question is that of Lacanian psychoanalysis, once popular if not dominant in certain sectors of the academy, especially when combined with French Marxism. Even if psychoanalytic theories and their attendant interpretations of popular culture are not central for a group focused on film and philosophy, the issues of how to interpret human actions and artefacts are indeed properly 'philosophical' concerns, as I've tried to argue above.




The volume currently under review is _Cogito and the Unconscious_ . It is edited by Slavoj Zizek and is the second in a relatively new series entitled 'SIC' from Duke University Press. The series is edited by Zizek and Renata Salecl.


Those familiar with the academic scene right now will probably be aware of Professor Zizek's contributions. He has authored some ten books in only a few more years, and he has three more titles listed as forthcoming in 2001. His essays appear in at least three other volumes. He has co-authored a volume with Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau and has written forewords, introductions, afterwords and whatnot to three other books. He has edited or co-edited four more volumes, and he has another on the way. And, somewhat inexplicably, there is even _The Zizek Reader_ -- in case people find it hard to lay their hands on Zizek's work. Indeed, it seems that not only might readers be aware of Zizek, it would be quite hard not to be.


Further, it is not hard to come across the chapters of these volumes in the form of journal articles, as the author is not embarrassed about seeing the same material published separately in multiple places. The volumes themselves are not clearly distinguishable from the collections of individual essays, an impression supported when the essays get re-combined in other volumes. Rather, the coherence of Zizek's books lies neither in their argument nor in their scope but rather, if it may be said, in the very eclecticism of their method.


Whether or not Zizek's methods are emblematic of the Lacanian school, past evidence is strong that he will not go away soon and that, moreover, he is likely to strike again. Given this situation, one might want to get a sense of the propositions of this school and its methods, even at the risk of taking this volume as emblematic when it is not. (I believe it to be, but do not urge my belief as proof -- a lesson I wish the writers in the volume would take to heart.)


What I will say in what follows is that this volume presents *no method whatever*.


In the absence of any detectable method, a dizzying array of wildly entertaining and often quite maddening rhetorical strategies are deployed in order to beguile, browbeat, dumbfound, dazzle, confuse, mislead, overwhelm, and generally subdue the reader into acceptance. Example after example is supplied, but the principle that makes them examples is not itself given. Appeals are implicitly made to Lacan's authority but the source of that authority is never mentioned. The truth of Lacan's theories is urged by showing how other people's theories support that truth but without explaining why these theories have the same object. One concept is defined in terms of another, which is then defined in the same way, ad infinitum. What's being explained is mixed in with what's doing the explaining in a circular fashion so striking that it may well count as both a novelty and a technical innovation in the practice of interpretation. Concepts are 'applied' without any boundaries on either the concepts or the scope of their application. Arguments and interpretations are hastily summarized rather than being patiently outlined. Finally, sheer rhetorical force substitutes for argument.


These rhetorical tactics might not all be problematic in themselves: it is even possible to imagine that no form of humanistic interpretation could effectively eschew all of them. But when compounded as they are here, the difficulties presented seem to me nearly insuperable. Further, these procedures cannot be dismissed as inessential to the vital theoretical issues outlined, since, as I will try to show, the rhetorical procedures which attempt to convey the theories and to compel assent are closely tied to the theories themselves and to what I see as their chief intellectual failing: a collapse into vulgar idealism quite at odds with the claims made for these theories.




In what follows, I will first address the volume's topic and the issue of how strongly the sections and the individual essays which comprise them relate to the ostensible topic. Here even the justification of the connections amongst the volume's sections and pieces will begin to give the reader a sense of the rhetorical tactics at work in the volume.


I will then focus on Zizek's three entries in the volume he edited: the introduction, an essay on Welles, and another on Daniel Dennett. (This focus is not entirely unfair, since these three pieces make up almost one quarter of the volume.) I will try to delineate the rhetorical procedures Zizek uses to compel assent from the reader, and I will try to show that these procedures are not limited to his essays but also characterize at least specific moments in other work in the volume.





The volume's ostensible topic is given in the title: the cogito and the unconscious. Not all the entries in the volume, however, nor indeed each of the three sections into which the volume is divided, bear a clear relationship to this double focus. While some entries bear a clear and strong relationship to this framework, the inclusion of other entries are difficult to comprehend. Admirable as they may be in themselves, they don't truly illuminate the issues purportedly addressed by the volume's existence.




Part I, 'Cogito as a Freudian Concept', contains three essays, all of which address Lacan's understanding of subjectivity in some way, even if the more narrowly Cartesian concept of the cogito is not always front and center.


Mladen Dolar's essay 'Cogito as the Subject of the Unconscious' begins by posing Lacan's essay on the 'mirror stage' as offering an alternative to the cogito. In Lacan's alternative the ego is a site and effect of misrecognition rather than thinking: I am (as a subject) only insofar as I misrecognize myself in the form of an image (the ego, me *qua* image). Dolar objects to structuralist and poststructuralist writers -- Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Althusser, Derrida, Kristeva -- because they offer non-subjective conceptions of the subject, conceptions which dissolve the subject into an effect of something else: structure, discourse, interpellation, writing, the semiotic. By contrast, the notion of a subject is central for Lacan -- but obviously a different kind of subject than Descartes imagined.


Thus, the first entry in the volume strikes deeply at the volume's core issues, and the extensive references to Lacan give the reader the opportunity to test the arguments offered against the work which supposedly authorizes those arguments. But the author's sheer faith that Lacan is saying something and, further, that Lacan got it right, together with the method used to explain Lacan's reading of Descartes (more on this below), may not satisfy readers who do not share these assumptions, since the work of grounding these assumptions is simply not done.




In 'The Subject of the Law' Alenka Zupancic analyzes the displacements effected on Kantian ethics by Freud and Lacan. Explaining these displacements, particularly those effected by Lacan, requires reference to the concept of jouissance -- the French word which means enjoyment in both the sexual and legal senses but which is put to frankly idiomatic use by Lacan to the point of becoming a technical term.


In brief, Zupancic argues that Kantian ethics seeks to produce a universality which cannot be reconciled with the particularly of the subject upon which this ethics also depends, even if we attempt to think the subject in abstract terms. That is: when the subject tries to think his relation to the law, there must always be leftover some particularity to each and every subject which cannot be assimilated to the law or to this ethical thinking in their abstract character. Here one can appeal to Freud to support Zupancic's reading in the sense that Freud can be said to have given us a kind of phenomenology of the individual's experience in the learning the law of the family -- namely, the Oedipal double imperative both to be like the father and not to have what he has. On this view, Lacan formalizes this relation between the subject and the law in such a way that the generality of the subject devolves upon that subject's very particularity, and hence a recourse to Kant seems like a justifiable project.


Zupancic's essay thus deals with psychoanalysis, if not the unconscious per se, and with Kant's conception of subjectivity, if not the cogito precisely. (Already the volume has begun to wander from its titular topic.) And since Zupancic's analysis deals with Kant's ethics in some specific detail, students of Kant will be able to use Zupancic's essay to get some sense of Lacan's argument and may then decide to debate with either Lacan or Zupancic. In any case, the essay is relevant to the topic and provides the basis for engaging with it.


The third essay in the first section is one of Zizek's, and I will discuss it in detail below. Interested readers will discern then whether or to what extent the essay takes up the topics of the cogito and the unconscious.




If most of first section of _Cogito and the Unconscious_ bears an evident relation to the volume's topic, the second section, entitled 'Cogito's Body', bears no appreciable relation either to the cogito or to the unconscious. Encountering it within the pages of this volume thus produces a surreal effect, though not an entirely unpleasant one.


In his introduction, Zizek claims that this section 'focuses on Nicolas Malebranche, the Cartesian philosopher and theologist who, with an unheard of audacity, tackled the deadlocks in which the Cartesian project gets involved apropos of the enigmatic status of the human body . . .' (7). Thus the slim excuse for this section involves analyzing a 'monstrous' body as an embodiment or side effect of the construction of human consciousness in terms on a function of pure thinking. If the first section of the volume slides from the cogito to subjectivity more broadly construed, the second section slides yet further. Thus 'the cogito' has become 'subjectivity'; Descartes has become Malebranche by way of Cartesianism, and subjectivity is then traded in for 'monstrosity'.


While it is true that the three essays in this section examine either monstrosity (Polyphemus or the Siren) or Malebranche -- this is already a wide enough berth -- the connections to Descartes or the cogito remain implicit rather than explicit, and the editor's rhetorical strategies for compelling the reader's belief in these essays' relatedness to the topic at hand must become more naked. Writing of Alain Grosrichard's essay, 'The Case of Polyphemus, or, a Monster and Its Mother', Zizek writes: 'Is the monster with a phallic protuberance above his one eye . . . not a kind of obscene double of the Cartesian cogito, its impossible spectral embodiment?' (7). The reader cannot answer 'No', since then there's nothing else to connect the essay in question with the volume's supposed topic. Grosrichard's essay itself provides a fascinating account of Malebranche's theology, but the relation to Lacan is indirect at best. Grosrichard does at one point (134) bring in concepts like 'the gaze of the Other', and by means of this transition the writer is able to bring two or three pages on Descartes. But Cartesians are likely to be disappointed.


The second essay in the section, Miran Bozovic's essay 'Malebranche's Occasionalism, or, Philosophy in the Garden of Eden', is a detailed discussion of Malebranche, and it should prove rewarding to specialists. But, replete as it is with detailed references to Malebranche, neither Descartes nor Lacan seemed to crop up in the 100 footnotes, and I was not able to discern connections either to the cogito or the unconscious.


The third essay, Renata Salecl's 'The Silence of Feminine Jouissance', does, by contrast, give a Lacanian explanation: what's being explained is the Greek myth of the siren. But whatever one thinks of this discussion -- I say somewhat more about it below -- the one thing left unexplained is the relation to Malebranche: he does not seem to be mentioned in the essay, and if he is mentioned on its pages, the reference is left out of the index. Enlightening though this essay might be, it doesn't seem to belong where it is now. Scanning Zizek's introduction for a clue as to the connection, one finds the following: 'In the concluding essay of this part, Renata Salecl tackles the lethal *jouissance* of the siren's voice.' (7) I suppose that to the author this topic automatically calls to mind a direct connection to Malebranche or to Descartes, but the connection is obscure at best.




The collection's final section -- Part III, 'Cogito and Its Critics' -- concerns what the editor calls 'three paradigmatic contemporary critiques of the Cartesian subjectivity' (7): Bataille, Althusser and Dennett. If one had to list 'three paradigmatic contemporary critiques of the Cartesian subjectivity' I'm not sure that these three would come immediately to mind. Bataille in particular seems an odd choice, and the choice is not justified in a strong way in Marc de Kessel's essay, 'A Sovereign's Anatomy: The Antique in Bataille's Modernity and Its Impact on His Political Thought'. Again, if Descartes is mentioned, I missed it. But one cannot blame the author for the inclusion of his work in an edited volume.


Robert Pfaller's 'Negation and Its Reliabilities: An Empty Subject for Ideology' openly acknowledges itself as something of a footnote. Pfaller begins by declaring Zizek's interpretation of the movie _Blade Runner_ to be 'brilliant' (225), and then goes on to a expand upon Zizek's juxtaposition of Ridley Scott and Descartes. But this expansion deals more with Althusser, Lacan, and Zizek than with Descartes. A note (241) explains to the reader that the essay began as a letter to Zizek, and it retains some of the 'fan' quality that this implies. Indeed, references to Zizek and his school far outnumber references to Lacan, let alone references to poor old Freud, who seems quite lost by the wayside.


Pfaller is interested in adding some niceties to Althusser's conception of ideology, and so those interested in that topic may find this essay useful, but the entire status of the document depends upon one already accepting the worth of what's being commented on, so those who find Zizek on Ridley Scott and Descartes less than 'brilliant', or Althusser on ideology unappealing, may not have much use for a commentary on these.


In short, the effect one gets is that the volume targets a genuine issue in the relationship between psychoanalysis and philosophy, but that not enough material directly addressing this issue was available, and so the volume was filled out with interesting contributions from the friends and admirers on subjects somewhat tangential to the stated topic. While some of these entries might seem more meritorious in other contexts, being in the wrong context deprives them of much of their potential force. In any case, the reader should be forewarned that the volume's entries are not tightly integrated.







In order to appreciate the rhetorical tactics of this volume, it is helpful to delve into Zizek's own 'Four Discourses, Four Subjects', since the opening of this essay displays much of what is good and bad about both his work and this volume. Zizek reprises Lacan's 'definition' of a signifier: that which 'represents the subject for another signifier' (74). This 'definition' is what Zizek will then explain. But one might justly wonder: how is this a 'definition'? And what is it going to mean to 'explain' it? Zizek has no such concerns: he's going to provide an example of a definition whose truth is already assured.


The medical chart resting at the foot of an old-fashioned hospital bed provides an 'example': the subject is inscribed in the chart as a series of signifiers themselves inscribed in a chain of other signifiers. The example retrospectively gives the 'definition' an embodiment which makes the definition more user-friendly than it might seem at first glance. But to the extent that the example succeeds, it does so too well: it covers up a certain lack in what was being exemplified. Namely, how is the reader assured that this is indeed what Lacan meant? And what procedure was used to get from a Lacan's definition to this example?


Thus, right from the outset in Zizek's essay one can find the entire problem and, to be fair, the entire interest, of Zizek's procedure: the author presents a splendid series of examples, each fascinating in its on right, each tied to the next by a logic which is here half obscure, there half evident, but without the author ever thereby shedding light on the *status* of the text which authorizes his own discourse (Lacan's, that is) or shedding light on the very process of moving from the abstract concepts to the concrete examples.




Sometimes the very process of giving examples is itself interrupted by a strange process of substitution in which what's going to be explained gets switched with something else -- just as Descartes gets swapped out for Malebranche midway through the volume. Thus, in order to explain the way Lacan conceives the relation between the subject and the 'Other', Zizek instead explains Lacan's scheme of the 'four discourses', structures which relate the subject to yet other terms -- a master signifier, knowledge, and surplus enjoyment. Then, instead of defining each of these terms and drawing the implication for their possible relations, Zizek explains the whole thing at once -- how else? -- by giving examples. One discourse is exemplified by Churchill, another by a Woody Allen movie. Another involves what Zizek calls 'medical discourse', yet another Romeo and Juliet, and yet another Racine. Then there are ethnic jokes and Rossini's attitude towards Mozart.


At each turn, as the Lacanian insignia are being explained, yet other terms pop-up which are not themselves explained. The reader finds herself caught in an infinite regress of things which need to be explained being explained by things which themselves need to be explained: hence the Alice-in-Wonderland feeling one gets from reading Zizek -- a feeling not entirely unenjoyable but not entirely profitable either.


All and anything, it seems, can be brought in to exemplify Lacan's theories. On this plane, Zizek is the ultimate postmodern theorist -- not because of anything he says about postmodernity, but rather because of the way he exemplifies the postmodern dissolution of the barrier between high culture and popular culture, between art and commodity.


Not that I am complaining about these examples. For thank goodness, in a way, for the examples: they are easy enough to comprehend. Indeed, Zizek's examples bring the theories he claims to be explaining down to the level of witty anecdotes, suitable for being repeated at cocktail parties. Some recap jokes, while others detail the plots of novels -- sometimes at length and with minimal interpretation.


But we must take it on faith that these anecdotes do indeed explain the opaque ideas which they are offered to exemplify. It is even possible that readers of Zizek turn the pages to read the witty anecdotes and are gratified to feel that this form of amusement embodies a higher form of knowledge. Doubtless many copies of these volumes are sold on just such a pleasure -- together with the promise that the reader will find enlightenment about the nature of opaque foreign theories. This is no mean feat. Nor do I mean to belittle Zizek's achievement. But this approach can be taken to do a disservice to the ideas being proffered, since the nature, source, and status of the ideas gets hidden as much as revealed by the examples.


One could easily get the feeling that Lacanian psychoanalysis can 'explain' anything, and this seems essentially correct, except for the small caveat that 'explain' means providing an amusing example. There are no limits to what can be brought in as an example, and hence the feeling of the theory's explanatory power. But one might also insist that it is rather a question of no limits having been placed on what precisely stands in need of explanation and how precisely it should be explained. This is 'theory' in the negative sense: an idea articulated in such general terms without specifying either a scope of application or canons of explanation to be followed.




It is in the process of explaining these 'four discourses' that Zizek addresses questions of gender, and it is in this context that the book comes closest to discussing film and that Zizek gives an extended analysis of Orson Welles. To understand what Zizek says about Welles, however, one needs understand what Zizek is purportedly explaining -- namely, the relation of gender to subjectivity. Thus, in order to explain Lacan's concept of the subject, Zizek needs to refer to Lacan's four discourses, and in order to explain those, he needs to explain Lacan's theory of gender.


Lacan's 'formulas of sexuation' turn out to be embodied in the shift from Wittgenstein's early to late works. Perhaps you don't know what that might be, or perhaps it might be many things to you, but to Zizek it's this:


'in the early Wittgenstein of _Tractatus_, the world is comprehended as a self-enclosed, limited, bounded whole of 'facts', which precisely as such presupposes an exception: the ineffable mystical that functions as its limit. In late Wittgenstein, on the contrary, the problematic of the ineffable disappears, yet for that very reason the universe is no longer comprehended as a whole regulated by the universal conditions of language: all that remains are lateral connections between partial domains.' (83)


The point is that Zizek 'explains' Lacan's 'formulas of sexuation' by reference to something else which is not itself patently self-explanatory but which rather calls for yet another gloss. Zizek gives the gloss, and one might well accept it: it's a sort of deconstructive, more-Hegelian-than-thou exercise. No one could seriously think this gloss on Wittgenstein should be taken as a full-blown reading of Wittgenstein, and there's no impression that Zizek offers it as such. Indeed, it's *only an example*, and therein lies the rub. Namely, the meaning and value of the example needs to be assumed in order for the example to play its role as an explanation of something else -- Lacan's 'formulas of sexuation' -- which was the ostensible topic being explained and exemplified.


Lacan Made Simple thus turns out to be Everything Else Made Very, Very Easy: the meaning of everything else which is brought in as examples needs to be assumed in order that it might 'explain' Lacan, which is apparently not self-evident. But what is it that authorizes this reading of Wittgenstein -- since it's too brief to be supported by its own evidence or patent appeal? One needs to have accepted the reading, but that reading itself is never performed, only summarized in a bored and hasty tone.


There's a sort of intellectual blackmail here: to understand Lacan, which any self-respecting intellectual would apparently want, you must already have read Wittgenstein, which no self-respecting intellectual will admit he hasn't done. The reader is expected not to quibble over the details of Wittgenstein, since that's not the ostensible topic of the text. Rather, the reader gets a dollop of both Lacan and Wittgenstein -- two for the price of one.




Meanwhile, back at the formulae of sexuation, Zizek summarizes:


'In short, what sustains the difference between the two sexes is not the direct reference to a series of symbolic oppositions (masculine reason versus feminine emotion, masculine activity versus feminine passivity, etc.), but a different way of coping with a necessary inconsistency involved the act of assuming and the same universal symbolic feature (ultimately that of 'castration'). It is not that man stands for logos as opposed to be feminine emphasis on emotions; it is rather that, for man, logos as the consistent and coherent universal principle of all reality relies on the constitutive exception of some mystical, ineffable X ('there are things one should not talk about'), while, in the case of a woman, there is no exception, 'one can talk about everything', and, for that very reason, the universe of logos becomes inconsistent, in coherent, dispersed, 'non -- all' (84).


The underlying assumption in this passage seems to be that it is *not* all right to reduce masculine and feminine to certain kinds of concepts (oppositions, for example), but it is just fine to reduce them to better, more complex (or more entertaining) concepts. Masculinity *cannot* be understood in terms of reason and femininity in terms of emotion, but it's fine to understand gender difference in terms of a 'constitutive exception'. We are not told whether oppositional concepts shouldn't be used to understand gender or are just illegitimate in general. Instead, a highly deconstructive concept is brought in, but it is reduced from the level of a concept to an explanation of a whole series of concrete phenomena -- gender difference in all its sundry manifestations.


If the passage starts out treating masculine and feminine as signifiers -- of reason and emotion, activity and passivity, etc. -- it then reduces 'the difference between the . . . sexes' to ' a different way of coping' with a certain 'universal symbolic feature'. That is: the concepts brought in have been reduced to coping strategies in order to define gender roles psychologically. But we are never told why this kind of reductive definition is preferable to the ones it replaces.


This form of Lacanianism thus reduces concepts to principles governing concrete behavior: in other words, it's a form of vulgar idealism, since here ideas (but only the good ones) purportedly drive human behavior (i.e. masculinity is just a certain attitude towards universality). The distance between this Lacanian approach and identity politics then becomes more clear: taking particular identities seriously means exactly *not* reducing them to abstract concepts. This explains why Zizek does not introduce particular forms of identity into his arguments: they would muck up the vast generalizations whose 'truth' consists of their very form.


A similar vulgar idealism plague's De Kessel's reading of Bataille. De Kessell focuses on Bataille's peculiar understanding of the concept of sovereignty. It is on the basis of this concept that De Kessel explains what a critique of Stalinism and the Holocaust would look like, although the author gives no explanation of why existing criticisms of Stalinism and the Holocaust are insufficient and why one derived from Bataille might be needed.


De Kessel's essay has the virtue of making explicit the kind of Hegelianism which is used with greater dexterity and by Zizek. This Hegelianism has two parts. The first involves giving negativity a central role: ''Being' *is* its own transience, and, as such, it *is* its own negation' (201). (I don't think one can get more Hegelian than that.) The second part involves Ideas replacing on the one hand psychological explanations for human behavior and on the other hand material explanations for historical events. De Kessel interprets an apparent set of motives as a screen behind which another one hides: 'The ideals one fights for are never more than a *secondary* revolutionary mainspring; their role is to veil, behind rational and ideological reasons, the principal purpose man seeks, and which lies in this 'moment' of lethal negativity.' (202) Here apparent motives cover 'real' ones, and that's not the Lacanian 'real' we're talking about but a vulgar one.


In this framework, the death camps and the gulags are then just historical expressions of an Idea (here sovereignty) which has been malformed by alienation and repression but which only needs a better outlet, greater access to self-consciousness, in order to avoid these horrors. Calling such an understanding of history 'idealist', or such a conception of how to avoid repeating the past 'armchair', seems to me altogether too gentle.




In the same paragraph where Zizek spells out the proper logical understanding of the relation between the sexes, he goes on to give two further explanations of gender: men identify with their symbolic titles while at the same time believing there is something else beyond this 'social mask', where for women there's only a play of masks; love for man is unconditional yet can be sacrificed, where for women love is all and yet leaves women strangely indifferent. Zizek brings along this set of differences right after the prior set (reason vs emotion, etc.), and yet it is doubtful that these examples are really 'the same' as the prior ones. A new set of instances are offered as if in further support of 'the same' concept. The transition is in fact the word 'or' (84), which suggests that whatever lies on either side of the 'or' might somehow be interchangeable.


The procedure here, then, is to yoke examples together as if related but without explaining the nature of the relationship. Further examples include the films _No Sad Songs for Me_ and _A Guy Named Joe_, and an Emily Dickinson poem. While the incongruities that pile up can certainly be amusing, the reason a Spencer Tracy film and an Emily Dickinson poem should illuminate the same topic is never spelled out.


The piling up of disparate examples suggests an underlying formal homology amongst the examples: masculinity is to femininity as this is to that. Once an underlying formal structure has been found, an almost indefinite amount of 'content' can be found to fill the same 'form'. But as the 'contents' grow increasingly disparate, you can't help but wonder what the rationale is that allows one structure to be transformed into another.


Here the writers in the volume play fast and loose. Thus when Dolar explains the meaning of Lacan's concept of alienation through Lacan's own examples, 'I think, therefore I am' turns out to bear the same formal structure as 'Your money or your life'. This obviously takes some doing. The lack of explanation for each particular model offered and the relentless proliferation of such models makes the reader feel that no one particular model is terribly reliable, since each needs to be replaced with another with such rapidity.


Similarly, when Grosrichard brings Descartes into his essay on Malebranche, it is only possible because Malebranche has provided 'mutatis mutandis, a tragic version' of Descartes (134). Even in the absence of a reference to Lacan, we can recognize a hallmark Lacanian rhetorical gesture: *mutatis mutandis*, the magic words which allow different things to be *versions of* each other without the exact relation being spelled out. Lacan's name here comes to signify the fields within which these presentations take place, but the boundaries of the field or the precise logic of permutations need never be made explicit.


(The case is different, I would argue, in the present review. If I can claim to find formal homologies among the writers, it is because these homologies are of rhetorical structure, which is the object of my argument, and because the writers are -- avowedly -- of the same school. This is quite different from finding formal homologies between otherwise unconnected texts -- Emily Dickinson and _A Guy Named Joe_, for example.)


It is in the context of analyzing gender and subjectivity that Zizek introduces the oeuvre of Welles. Mind you, it's not this or that Welles film that Zizek wants to analyze, but rather the entire work -- and the man, too. It turns out that Welles will provide an example of 'the inherent deadlock of *male* subjectivity' (91-92, emphasis in the original). Here Zizek leans heavily on James Naremore's _The Magic World of Orson Welles_, as elsewhere in the volume Zizek and others rely heavily on the work of other writers for material they can re-shape into what we are told is a Lacanian mold.


For both Naremore and Zizek, Welles's work is split between two styles: a critical social realist orientation toward politics functions as a backdrop which gives rise to the depiction of a character of grotesque and even tragic proportions whose failure caps the films. It is not difficult to follow Zizek in taking the split as referring to Welles himself: between his Democratic political leanings on the one hand and his own grandiose ambitions on the other. Zizek then links this split to one in Welles's visual style, around the use of deep focus: the antithesis between the objective properties of the device (in being able to show a wide visual field) and its subjectivizing ability to impart a dream-like feeling of entrapment created by the distortion of a wide-angle lens. (The opposition is already inscribed, I believe, in Andre Bazin's discussion of deep focus.) Zizek mentions Bazin but places him -- wrongly, I think -- on the objective side of understanding deep focus. Zizek then reads this split by using Truffaut's analysis of a moral antagonism, one between humanistic and anti-humanistic, moral, and immoral attitudes.


Zizek's analysis of Welles is thus (a) extremely condensed, telegraphed even, and (b) borrowed from other writers. Both strike me as problematic. Since the other writers' work (that of Naremore, Bazin, Truffaut) is not analyzed in detail, the reader is not given the opportunity to situate Zizek's interpretation in relation to those he borrows. Zizek positions himself as re-shaping existing material into something more complex, but the difference between what Zizek is saying and what the writers he relies on say is never made clear.


The same kind of heavy reliance on others' interpretations is evident in Salecl's interpretation of the Greek myth of the siren. There what needs to the explained, apparently, is the meaning of the sirens' song within the context _The Odyssey_. Salecl has the strange idea -- left unexplained in the text -- that this song must have words, while Homer's text does not to provide them. Here Salecl draws on arguments made by Pietro Pucci and Tzvetan Todorov but re-interprets them along Lacanian lines:


'in other words, the Sirens' song is the point in the narrative that has to remain unspoken for the narrative to gain consistency. It is an empty point of self-referentiality that a story has to omit in order to attain the status of a story. From the Lacanian perspective, this empty point is another name for the real, the unsymbolizable kernel around which the symbolic forms itself' (177).


The sirens, then, are just another pretext for explaining something else -- the Lacanian concept of the real. The sirens themselves get read by means of other critics whose work is disposed of when it is no longer needed. The actual concept provided by the Lacanian interpretation, however, does not seem radically different from the concept of a 'blind spot' to which writers as diverse as Louis Althusser and Paul de Man appeal. Since the writer does not locate the Lacanian analysis in relation to any others, there's nothing to recommend replacing a familiar concept with another variant. If the reader wishes to understand Lacan, this analysis will probably make Lacan easier to understand, since the analysis itself can already be understood according to perfectly non-Lacanian methods. It may be implied that the Lacanian reading is superior, but we are not necessarily told why, nor given the means to discern either the difference or the relative merits for ourselves.


To return to Zizek reading of Welles, after relying on Naremore, Zizek brings in Truffaut, but only in order to contrast this reading with a more Nietzschean one. The Nietzschean reading then gets replaced by a 'simplified Heideggerian' reading of Welles, which in turn gives way to a reading of Dostoyevsky and Wagner's _The Twilight of the Gods_, and the Old Testament story of Noah and his sons. Zizek then contrasts Welles with Ayn Rand's novels _The Fountainhead_ and _Atlas Shrugged_ -- as providing a 'feminine counterpoint to the tension of the male subjectivity' (100).


At this point Zizek's tendency toward the homology and compressed summary goes into overdrive, and the reader can feel distant stars turning into streaks of light -- whoosh! -- jetting past: 'what Pascal and Racine were to Jansenism, what Kleist was to German nationalist militarism, what Brecht as to Communism, Rand is to American capitalism' (101). All of which is very easy to follow, so long as you assume that it's easy to know what relation Pascal and Racine -- all of them? -- bear to Jansenism, and what relation Kleist and Brecht bear to various other movements. And if the reader cannot discern the nature of these parallels, Zizek telegraphs it -- but in Lacanian-ese: Rand 'formulate[s] directly the fantasmatic kernel of American capitalist ideology' (101).


The condensed quality of the arguments, the fact that no interpretation is worked out but is instead telegraphed, goes hand in hand with both the borrowing from existing work and the formal structure of homology. The Lacanian method, if it can be called that, seems to rely on the fact that anything can be related to anything else -- no matter who wrote it -- by being plugged into the matrix A is to B as C is to D. There is no limit to what can be 'explained' in this fashion, as long as the elements can be summarized briefly enough, and as long as 'explanation' is taken to mean giving 'examples' and relating them in this fashion. But the writer must in a sense assume that the reader already (a) knows what the argument or interpretation being summarized is and (b) agrees with it -- since if one disagreed with one part of the analogy, the analogy as a whole would collapse.




Thus for Zizek Welles is to Rand as the deadlock of masculine subjectivity is to the tension of feminine subjectivity. And then each of the main characters in _The Fountainhead_ turns out to embody one particular Lacanian concept, but only by in turn reducing _The Fountainhead_ to *something else* -- namely to Wagner's _Parsifal_. Since this reduction cannot itself be justified, it is introduced only through a rhetorical question: 'Is then, *in ultima analisi*, the scenario of _The Fountainhead_ not that of Wagner's _Parsifal_? [W] is Parsifal the saint, the being of pure drive; [X] is Kundry in search of her delivery; [Y] is Amfortas, the failed saint; [Z] is Klingsor, the impotent evil magician' (105-106). I've left out the names of Rand's characters, since it's not relevant in this context: I'm not disagreeing with the substance of Zizek's reading, if indeed there is some. Rather, I am underlining the procedure which seems to me hasty, indeed, based on haste, and which also seems to pose the question of its own status, even if this question goes unarticulated and unaswered in Zizek's text.


Namely, what precisely is the *ultima analisi* -- the last analysis that Slavoj Zizek wants to offer us? And why not just call it 'the last analysis' -- if not because calling it that might invite the reader to ask *why* it is the last analysis, and it is only the last analysis because sheer rhetorical force -- here the rhetorical question and the reliance upon Latin -- would make it so.


Zizek gives the impression that in order to understand Lacan, all you need to do is to read _The Fountainhead_, but in order to understand _The Fountainhead_ you really need to understand _Parsifal_, and in order to understand _Parsifal_ you really need to be able to understand Lacan. Yet all these understandings must be *assumed without demonstration and must proceed without a method*. Apparently, the reader has no right to know just *why* this analysis is so very ultimate. Or in the chain of circular concepts, explanations, and examples, there is simply no way out, no way to tether the free-floating structure to something like an argument or a justification. All of which might be perfectly 'Lacanian' but it is not terribly helpful.




Since I've now pointed out that Zizek borrows much of the substance of his interpretations from other writers, the question of the difference between what Zizek is saying and what those he comments on say is pressing. The essay that closes the volume, 'The Cartesian Subject versus the Cartesian Theater', turns out to be a good place to examine this question.


Zizek begins by appealing to Lenin's call to understand one's ideological enemies. Thus it seems as if Zizek might situate himself in an ideological struggle and thus give us a clue to how he situates himself. When the 'enemy' chosen is Dieter Henrich and his followers, and the enemy's enemy is 'deconstruction' or 'postmodernism', Zizek situates himself amongst those whose ideas he often criticizes even while appropriating their arguments: 'Heidegger, . . . Foucault, Derrida, Rorty' (247).


Readers of Zizek will recognize in his sketch of Henrich's work features of Zizek's own project: the 'endeavor to prove that the notion of the subject as it was elaborated in German Idealism, in no way precludes the subject's 'decenterment'' (247). Since a recent volume by Zizek centers on Schelling, the reader has reason to believe that Henrich's project may not be entirely removed from Zizek's own.


Very quickly, then, it's no longer clear on which side Zizek sees himself. Is Henrich and his school's work on German Idealism the enemy? If so, why? What is the difference between what Henrich says about German Idealism and what Zizek says? All we find out is that for Zizek the work of Henrich and his school 'often misses the mark', and he says it would be 'easy to demonstrate' this, but he doesn't (247).


Instead, after the first paragraph setting out the significance of German Idealism, Zizek quickly displaces the ground to cognitive science: 'Instead of engaging in a direct dialogue with Henrich's school, it seems more promising to confront it with contemporary endeavors by cognitive sciences to provide an . . . account of the emergence of consciousness.' (248) No explanation is offered as to why this indirect dialogue promises more, unless it's because this displacement will allow Zizek to appropriate the German Idealistic argument from which he cannot differentiate himself. The sheer rhetorical force of the author's assertion -- 'it seems more promising' -- must take the place of an argument.


Zizek's account of Dennett runs to several pages, during which Zizek translates Dennett into Hegelian terms: 'immediacy itself is mediated' (250), etc. Examples of Dennett's argument can be found in Bertrand Russell's letters, Patricia Highsmith's _Strangers on a Train_, and early Kieslowski. But why there and not elsewhere? Is the reader really supposed to think: 'Well then Dennett must surely be right if 'his' idea can be 'found' in all these places'?


Dennett's argument about consciousness does away with the place of the subject as a central watcher in a Cartesian Theater. But it turns out that if we read Descartes through German Idealism, especially Schelling, we can re-interpret Hegel as already having said what Zizek makes Dennett say. But that says nothing about the status of Dieter Henrich's reading of German Idealism, nor really about the relation of Schelling and Hegel to Dennett. Happily, however, Dennett is saying no more than what the Lacanian reading of Kant and Hegel tell us about the subject.


Ultimately, one can't help but wonder why Zizek needs to read Dennett at all, since Lacan already said what Dennett says. And if Lacan already said what Dennett says, it seems surprising that no one noticed it before. In the end, Dennett turns out to be a pretext for explaining something else -- Lacan's relation to German Idealism -- which then itself conveniently never gets explained, since that other thing can (already) be found in the first thing, which was itself never more than a pretext.


In this process the possibility arises, however, that Lacan did *not* say what Dennett says and that Dennett is *not* saying what Lacan said. Instead, Dennett is already being read so as to make his argument Lacanian -- or, more accurately, neo-Hegelian/Schellingian. And then Dennett, whom the reader might believe and understand, gets offered as *an example* of what Lacan *meant*, without the hermeneutic labor or reasoning being conducted which would show how Dennett's conclusions can be derived by a series of reasonable transformations from Lacan's texts. To do such would be to produce an argument, not an 'example' which is merely an assertion substituting for an argument.




In other words, by summarizing and abbreviating the arguments they discuss, by yoking them together, and by using others' arguments to explain Lacan, Zizek and the writers of his school produce a kind of vicious circularity of interpretations or explanations in which what is to be explained or interpreted cannot be separated from what's doing the explaining and interpreting.


For example, Dolar translates Descartes into Lacanian-ese: the cogito is the subject; Descartes's certainty is underwritten by God, and God turns out to be the Other (with a Big 'O'): no mere small 'o' object but rather a figure for a culture's symbolic system insofar as the latter guarantees meaning. But insofar as the interpretation is comprehensible as a reading of Descartes, it doesn't have need for the Lacanian theory but is rather patently demonstrable from Descartes's text itself. Descartes is being explained or interpreted, explicated, by reference to Lacan, but this process says nothing about the relation between Descartes and Lacan. Thus it would be a mistake to conclude from the fact that one can translate Descartes into Lacanian terms that Descartes was Lacanian *avant la lettre*, nor indeed that Lacan is himself Cartesian. Indeed, the translation says nothing about the status of either writer, or about their relation to each other. Rather, the procedure obscures the relation it is, I assume, meant to clarify.


Similarly, in Zupancic's essay on Kant, the fit between Kant and Lacan is too close for comfort: one can't help but feel that not only is Kant being read in a Lacanian fashion, but Lacan is himself being tailored to fit the reading of Kant. A sort of sleight of hand trick is being operated where what should be explained -- Lacan -- is instead used as an explanation of something else -- Kant. But, like the rabbit-in-the-hat trick, the Lacanian reading has already been smuggled into Kant's text.


Too much is at stake in Kant's already being Lacanian (or in Lacan being Kantian) to disentangle the extent to which each both is and is not. The reader never learns precisely what would constitute a Lacanian reading -- of Kant or of Emily Dickinson or of anything else. If Lacan were simply a given, then the reader would be able to discern what changes were being wrought upon him to bring him in line with Kant. But since the purpose is at least in part to explain Lacan or to offer a Lacanian reading of Kant, we have no way of knowing how this reading is different from some putatively non-Lacanian reading of Kant.




It would be hasty to assume that the ideas propounded by authors who class themselves as partisans of a Lacanian school are without value, even if one concludes that the rhetorical strategies employed to propound them are suspect, just as it would be naive to search for a theory 'without rhetoric' -- as if that could be subtracted off like so much butterfat. But when so many of the 'examples' given to explicate and to justify the theory are borrowed from other sources, it is possible to wonder whether the ideas being presented necessitate a reference to Lacan without which the ideas would no longer be 'Lacanian'. The reader begins to suspect that Lacan is being explicated through interpretations arrived at without the aid of Lacan's theories, which in turn causes one to wonder about the value of the theories being proffered.


One gets the distinct impression that the writers collected in this volume, chief among them its editor, borrow the interpretations of others and then refine them and re-christen them as 'Lacanian', all the while claiming to set themselves apart from their academic rivals. But the difference seems in so many cases mostly nominal. Doubtless that is a 'performative' effect, and thus in itself Lacanian, since J. L. Austin's performative is probably itself already Lacanian. Despite consistent appeals to a the speech act model in Lacanian writing, the gesture of appealing to authority relies on an authority the gesture cannot itself confer but rather must depend upon, and so the very pronouncement of specific statements in this case does not produce the effects the statements describe, however much the authors might wish it were so.


Being for or against a certain author or school should in principle be distinguishable from the ability to analyze the arguments presented, the terms into which they are cast, and their method of argumentation. I do not think the standards I have suggested above are so terribly constraining that they discourage serious discussion. Nor do I think the theories currently presented by means which are suspect are therefore themselves to be discarded. But to judge the ideas at issue would require better arguments being made, and by better means too. The arguments presented in this volume do not take many steps in that direction.


To return at last to the question of method in the humanities under the banner of which I began this review, I am trying to say that it is not the conclusions which determine the validity of the theory but rather the procedures, since the conclusions in the human sciences tend to be simply the theoretical premises re-stated as if they were conclusions. If procedures without apparent method or rationale are used to reach a conclusion which as been determined in advance, we tend to feel the 'procedures' are a tissue of rationalizations. Such is often the case with the argumentative writing in the current volume.


A more difficult exercise would be to disentangle, to the extent possible, the exact place of Lacan as a reader of Kant and Hegel, rather than collapsing Kant and Hegel into prefigurations of Lacan. The fact that this latter strategy is closer to what patient readers of Lacan like Mikkel Borch-Jacobson and Samuel Weber have done is proof that Lacan *does* have something significant to say, or in any case that he can be read as part of a tradition, as a reader of other texts.


But assuming in advance that what Lacan said is both true and universally applicable is an entirely different project from either *determining* exactly what Lacan said or *applying* it, either of which would require a method. Assuming Lacan was correct may be a condition for being a Lacanian, but as a rhetorical strategy for convincing others that Lacan is a writer to be read, the strategy leaves much to be desired, since it assumes what it might instead set out to demonstrate, and demonstration is in the end a far more effective rhetorical tack than assumption.


Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, USA



Copyright © Edward R. O'Neill 2001


Edward R. O'Neill, 'The Last Analysis of Slavoj Zizek', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 17, June 2001 <>.



Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle


Join the Film-Philosophy salon,

and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here


Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England



Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage